Shattered lives, lost livelihoods and a despoiled environment – such is the legacy of Japan's most destructive modern disaster, a catastrophe that in many ways is still unfolding one week after the double-whammy of a monster 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a massive tsunami. Watching videos of the ominous black wave that hit the small coastal town of Miyako, sweeping cars, homes and infrastructure away as if they were children's toys... what sort of thoughts went through your mind?
Speaking for myself, my heart immediately went out to the people whose lives, livelihoods and living spaces were swept off by the unstoppable power of the angry sea. My next thought – arriving unbidden and accompanied by a rush of guilt – was “I'm glad I'm not there.” And yet, I WAS there... 19 years ago.
In 1992, our family decided to visit Japan's northern Tohoku region. The plan was to do a “hot spring resort hop” across the width of the country from one coast to the other. We began at an onsen in Akita prefecture on Japan's western coast. I rented a car – coincidentally the same model and color as my wife's Subaru Justy though it was right-hand drive – and we drove east, stopping at a variety of hot spring resorts until we reached the town of Miyako on the Pacific shore.
Miyako was famed for its natural scenic beauty and delicious fresh seafood: one night I enjoyed a sea urchin so fresh its spines were still moving - even after I had eaten it! We stayed at a government-run resort hotel perched on the imposing sea cliffs overlooking the Sannoh Iwa.
These were – and possibly still are – a group of three eroded sea stacks just offshore, accessible on foot at low tide. The tallest of the trio was about 150 ft (50m) tall.
I wonder... after standing tall and eroding gradually and gracefully for untold thousands of years, do the Sannoh Iwa rocks still stand upright after enduring the severe shock of a once-in-a-millennium earthquake and tsunami? Does it matter? Compared to the loss of a single human life, what is the value of a rock formation regardless of its size or beauty?
We also chose Miyako for its nearby Jodogahama Beach, a sheltered expanse of pale sand and rock shards framed by otherworldly rock formations upon which bonsai-like conifers struggled against the never-ending salt spray.
Shaped by the inexorable forces of wind, water and weathering since time immemorial, this exquisite and isolated beach had to have been radically reshaped, perhaps beyond recognition, by the tsunami's multi-meter waves. Again, is it wrong to wonder what a beach looks like now, when those who call the region home have far, far more serious concerns?
In the end, life will go on for the survivors of this natural disaster, now compounded by the man-made catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant south of Miyako. The broken pieces of lives, livelihoods and living spaces will be rescued, repaired and ultimately resumed.
The good people of Miyako who showed us such kindness in 1992 are now showing the world their inner strength and remarkable resiliency in the face of an uncaring, unforgiving Nature – as they always have, and always will.
I hope we can return to Miyako someday. I'd like to see Sannoh Iwa and Jodogahama Beach again, and compare their appearance with the way they were two decades ago. More than that, I'd like to see the people of Miyako again... and take joy in their admirable courage, deep pride, quiet dignity, and unconditional kindness. Rocks and beaches once thought immovable can crumble in a heartbeat when implacable natural forces suddenly strike. The human spirit, however, only grows stronger.
(With thanks to Laura E Thomas, Regulus Star Notes, Neekay, LaVoz, Allianz, Snark1127 and Shelterbox for the images used in this article. Speaking of Shelterbox, author Maureen Johnson has launched an online fundraiser for the victims of the Great Tohohu Kanto Earthquake and tsunami. Please click here to help)
*** UPDATE*** On March 27th, a Japanese blogger posted images and videos of Jodogahama Beach. Here are his/her shocking Before and After shots of the view looking out to sea from the beach: